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The Arts
12.31.08

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Phaedra

Courtesy of the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, SF
JELLYROLL: Timothy Horn's 'Medusa' at SJICA was enough to give Will Smith pause.

Sticking Power

The best art shows of 2008 left an indelible impression, from a giant jelly to a towering Styrobot

By Michael S. Gant


FOR REACH and sticking power, 2008 has to be dubbed the Year of the Jellyfish. In April, the superlative Israeli film Jellyfish about life in a Tel Aviv apartment building drifted to our shores. In December, a tentacled pet delivered a stinging send-off to Will Smith in Seven Pounds. In between, artist Timothy Horn installed a magnificent example of Cnidaria called Medusa in the Focus Gallery at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

Fashioned from silicone rubber, the hovering creature came with 16 rippling tubular extensions topped off with a fringed mantle and dangling chandelierlike pendants. Horn took as his inspiration the scientific art of Ernest Haeckel, a 19th-century German biologist, whose illustrations in Artforms of Nature are as much Lovecraftian as they are Lamarckian. Horn plays games with our perceptions—is this Medusa magnified to monstrous size or have we been shrunk to fit in its world?

This entrancing beast was one of several indelible images and shows from a fertile year at local art museums and galleries.

Early in 2008, at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, a powerful retrospective examined the mixed-media oeuvre of artist H.C. Westermann, who flourished in the 1950s and early '60s. A World War II vet, Westermann continued to be haunted by visions of combat, as seen in Destructive Machine From Under the Sea, depicting an anthropomorphized submarine striding across a wasteland shooting flames at tiny naked humans. Jellyfishes seem benign by comparison.

The human imagination in full flight is still on display (through Jan. 25) at the Tech Museum in San Jose. "Leonardo: 500 Years Into the Future" uses elaborate models and drawings to explicate the mechanical breakthroughs of Italian engineers and artists from the 1400s leading up to and including Da Vinci. Look up, and you can see his concept of a flying machine, with a superstructure of wood ribs replicating the motion of a bird's wings, powered by the interplay of gears, pulleys and cranks. Another mechanical pioneer's brainstorm finally came to fruition as the Computer History Museum in Mountain View displayed a working version of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, an enormous brass and cast-iron hand-cranked calculator—another example of science shading into art.

Local artist Hector Dio Mendoza illuminated the great outdoors with his Cultural Citizen Tree in St. James Park in downtown San Jose. The bare-branched fiberglass tree stands about 15 feet high and is painted bright shiny red. Mendoza wanted viewers to think about the diversity of life in Silicon Valley, where many races and cultures intersect on the tree of life. It was erected as part of the "Who's on 1st/What's on 2nd" program of public art pieces downtown.

Anno Domini on South First Street hosted a culturally resonant exhibit by Stephan Doitschinoff, a self-taught Brazilian artist known as CALMA. His canny combination of religious iconography (especially the symbols of the Spanish colonial Baroque) with graffiti gestures, most notably a squared-off skull dangling a lit cigarette from its clenched teeth, created a whole universe of personal temptation and salvation, complete with hybrid Portuguese-Latin inscriptions.

The biannual tech-art extravaganza known as 01SJ infiltrated a big chunk of June. The anchor show, "Superlight," at the San Jose Museum of Art, was supplemented by pieces that intrepid pedestrians could discover while flaneuring downtown. The best of these was Marina Zurkow's Paradoxical Sleep, an installation in the San Jose Convention Center. Various video screens transmitted images of a millennial flood, with the waters of the Guadalupe River rising to reclaim the transitory man-made structures along its bank.

The San Jose Museum of Art's "Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon" show unveiled a colossus of sorts who could stand guard over the valley. Michael Salter built his Giant Styrobot at the museum in situ using a glue gun and Styrofoam packing materials, the kind that cushion the computers designed and built around here. By reclaiming and repurposing so much landfill fodder, Salter showed a way to face a future of resource scarcity with imagination and wit.


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